Contrary to popular belief, the space shuttle Challenger did not blow up. It fell apart on take off in 1986, killing everybody on board.
The Challenger disaster occurred because there was a flaw with the design of the O-rings. Supplied by contractor Morton Thiokol (MT), the MT engineer’s brought their concerns about whether the O-rings would survive the weather conditions that Challenger was operating in to the attention of NASA. After much discussion, MT conceded that the O-rings were statistically highly likely to be safe and, on this basis, along with NASA they ok’d the launch.
Had the MT engineers had the guts to stuck to their guns, and/or NASA heeded their clear concern, this tragedy would not have taken place. But logic got in the way. (Or did it?)
This 2min video, showing the live CNN coverage of the disaster, includes subtitles that show you what was actually happening during the take off event.
The learning from Challenger sets us all a challenge. When is it right to stand up for our learned but instinctive understanding of a situation and stand firm in the face of apparent cold logic? How many of us are prepared to suffer the consequences of standing up for something we believe might be true but cannot prove, and which may cost us our livelihoods? And when should we lay down our instinctive-though-learned understanding of a situation and allow the purely logical facts and statistics take precedence?
One might argue that with a system as complex as a space mission, logic must always take precedence over instinct. However, it’s clear from Challenger that’s not always the right decision. What’s harder is working out when to roll with which override.
As humans we also deal with the fact there is no visible upside to not doing something when one cannot prove that something bad would have happened. This concept is better explained in a story in the book, Black Swans by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It goes like this:
“Assume that a legislator with courage, influence, intellect, vision and perseverance manages to enact a law that goes into universal effect and employment on September 10, 2001; it imposes continuously locked bullet-proofed doors in every cockpit (at high cost to the struggling airlines) just in case terrorists decide to use planes…. This legislation is not a popular measure among the airline personnel, as it complicates their lives. But it certainly would have prevented 9/11. The person who imposed locks… gets no statues in public squares, not so much as a quick mention… in his obituary, “Joe Smith, who helped avoid the disaster of 9.11 died of complications of liver disease”. Seeing how superfluous his measure was, and how it squandered resources, the public with great help from airline pilots, might well boot him out of office… He will retire, depressed, with a great sense of failure. I wish I could go to his funeral but, reader, I can’t find him.” (Taleb, 2007)
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